This week’s post is by Rev. Dr. Kirk A. Foster, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and a professor of social work. His research focuses on how people work through local organizations to improve their social and economic mobility, and work collectively to make sustainable change at the neighborhood level.
I grew up in a small town in Southern Illinois. We lived on a heavily traveled corner for both walkers and drivers. It was a happening place to be and I loved the interaction. We would wave to passersby or they would stop and talk because if we weren’t related, we knew each other to some small or large degree. People were connected, or at least my family was connected to many other people. It is a corner that has been home to four generations of my family and a town that has been our home for many, many years. We belonged.
I spend a lot of time thinking about neighborhoods and the people in them. I wonder how people relate to their neighbors. I wonder if neighbors help each other out with things that will make life easier and a little better. I wonder if neighbors still gather on porches. I wonder how many neighbors sit around kitchen tables, coffee cups half empty, with crumbs on plates as the only bits of evidence of an evening shared discussing the seriousness of life or the frivolity of nothing at all. I wonder if and how we are connecting with people similar to or different from ourselves. I wonder if we are becoming disconnected from people and instead use social media and television as a proxy for intimate relationships that provide deep connections despite difference. I wonder if we are connecting at all.
Regardless of your political leanings, the events in Charlottesville, VA last month challenged us all to assess critically how we treat people in this country, how we think about inclusivity, and how we think about opportunity. This is but one example of the rise in racially-charged incidents moving across our land as we struggle with changing identities, a shift to a country where no one racial/ethnic group has the majority, and we seek to make sense of a changing narrative. One of my current writing projects examines if and how minorities in the US feel included or excluded in American society. It seems bizarre to ask this question in 21st century America, but our nation has rabidly embraced nationalism. I am constantly assessing why and how this happened in a land of immigrants, and the impacts of this seemingly sudden shift in American sentiments toward difference.
Academics love data and in particular we love datasets that have lots of people in them because we can make generalizations to the larger population. Colleagues and I were part of the Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey, an online survey administered in the US between December 2016 and February 2017 that was conducted in multiple languages and drew over 10,000 participants. Like I mentioned above, I was interested in how interaction with other people in the context of civic organizations impacted their feelings of social inclusion and social exclusion. I asked if among minorities certain types of civic participation (e.g., volunteering) protected them from feeling excluded as compared to whites.
Here’s the short answer. Minorities in the United States overwhelmingly feel that they do not belong in this country and that they are very often excluded, as compared to their white counterparts. Particularly, Hispanics feel they belong only slightly or moderately as compared to whites, and African-Americans have significantly higher odds of feeling they do not belong at all or only slightly as compared to whites. Interestingly, as minorities become civically engaged, they have a higher feeling of exclusion, particularly for African-Americans and Hispanics, as compared to whites.
For the minorities we surveyed, being civically engaged heightens feelings of social exclusion. It is likely, I suspect, because they are acutely aware of their plight as they gather with others who share a similar story. We are seeing this play out in our streets and on our television screens. Groups are coming together to stand in protest against oppression, hate, and exclusion. As municipalities, states, and the federal government pass legislation that excludes or fail to pass legislation that protects basic human rights, we further marginalize our diversity. These actions fuel the flames of unrest as they seek to entrench an outdated narrative. We have made much progress since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s but it is clear we have a long way to go. When we marginalize, we embolden and empower hegemony in the hands of those who seek to keep their foot on the necks of the powerless. We cannot make progress as a people by perpetuating old systems of oppression. These are the very things Jesus himself died to prevent.
It’s not lost on me that I write these words on the day the President’s administration announced the end of the DACA program. These are challenging issues fraught with political landmines. I’m not naïve enough to believe that we are univocal or that I have the right answers (at least not always). I am bold enough to say that we can and should do better, that we must stop demonizing others, that we must acknowledge and end institutional racism, and that we cannot blame hard-working immigrants for the challenges of globalization or African-Americans for problematic policing. I am humble enough to say that not one of us can do this work on our own, but that it will take all of us. I am hopeful enough to say that the work we do in the United Church of Christ can and does make a difference.
Americans have shifted how we spend our time. Whereas we once regularly visited with our neighbors, we now spend more time with people from work or going out. All too often we live and breathe in homogeneous bubbles. My research findings trouble me and I hope they also trouble you. We cannot continue being a country that perpetuates systems that exclude. As an Easter people, we hope for more. As followers of Jesus of Nazareth, we are called to pick up our own cross and follow him. This is no easy task (as I was reminded in worship this past Sunday) but one that is required of us. You and I have no other choice.